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I am a 2nd year graduate student in physics, at one of the top 20 universities in the US. This semester, I am supposed to start a research project with a professor who agreed already to be my thesis advisor.

So, I emailed her at the beginning of the semester -10 days ago- but I didn't get a response yet. Nothing. I emailed her again yesterday and I hope for a response. I tried to go to her office, but I couldn't find her. She comes to the university only to teach and then she disappears.

I am really worried. Is this normal or is this a sign that the advisor doesn't care at all? Should I try and change advisor? She is a top scientist but I am very disappointed...

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    Maybe you could find out if she has 'office hours'? As a instructor she should have them usually. As for the emails, perhaps they got filtered out, or buried or maybe she just is busy or backlogged with stuff to do? – Rivasa Sep 10 '14 at 23:44
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    Related: Is ignoring emails acceptable in academia? – ff524 Sep 11 '14 at 0:17
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    Just out of curiosity, what the facts that you are in a top university and she is a top scientist have to do with your question? – Massimo Ortolano Sep 11 '14 at 17:52
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    Curiosity is a good thing: I think these facts may explain why she seems to be so busy. Also explains to me why is hard for me (at least psychologically!) to change advisors. – Aaron Sep 12 '14 at 12:59
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Flippant version: It is normal AND it is a sign that the advisor doesn't care at all.

Less flippant version: I would wait a couple more days. Then, if still no response, I would ask around to see if the professor is sick/having a major life crisis/etc. If not, then I would conclude that they do not meet a reasonable standard of availability, and I would choose to work with someone else. There are few things more depressing in academia than colleagues who drop the ball and ignore you, especially when they are senior to you and you rely on them to make progress on your work. Life is too short to be working with someone who is not interested in working with you.

  • @duboce: Note that you can edit your own answer at any time. – Wrzlprmft Sep 11 '14 at 16:47
  • @duboce: thank you for your helpful answer, and especially for your comment. – Aaron Sep 12 '14 at 13:06
  • @jigg While it is true that it is a speculation, duboce is right that 1) total ignorance of lesser beings is rather common in academia, and that 2) the situation easily can be a major red flag about what the OP can expect. – Greg Sep 12 '14 at 19:30
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    @duboce: DO NOT EDIT ANYTHING. It turns out that you were right! After 3 months, I realised she doesn't care. I wasted my time with her. I cannot go into details but I can say that now I am trying to start working with somebody else. This didn't have to do with me though, she doesn't care about any of her students. – Aaron Dec 14 '14 at 2:55
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This is, unfortunately, a not too uncommon occurrence in my limited experience in top US graduate schools. Some professors are over committed;others might be having a real life emergency/crises - yet others are just not good at replying to emails. There are a number of different strategies that you could employ at this juncture.

1. Email again, early next week:

There are a few variations to this strategy. First, if the professor has just missed your email due to a veritable deluge of emails in her inbox then this could be a timely reminder. Second, if there is another collaborator, temporary graduate chair or other, initial faculty that you worked with (since you mention that you are a second year graduate student), then an email with such a person cc'ed is usually good incentive to get at least, an initial reply.

2. Meet with the department chair/other goto faculty:

Every department will usually have one faculty who serves as a point of contact for students in any kind of a predicament. This is a predicament. You need to kickstart your research agenda with this professor (potentially) but have not been able to do so. In our department, we call them "Director of Graduate Studies". Your department might have a similar or different nomenclature for such a person. An email sent from this person (cc'ing you) is usually enough to get a reply.

3. If all fails, lie in wait to surprise them IRL:

Figure out their office hours. If they teach, then they must have office hours and usually, a website for the course that they are teaching. Ask their TA's (if they have any) when the office hours are. If you see this faculty in the corridors then stop them and chat with them.

I am a fifth year graduate student and over the years, I have had to (unfortunately) employ most variations of the three broad strategies I mentioned.One reason why I chose the dissertation committee that I have is that these professors always make time for me if I want to chat with them about some academic (and sometimes non-academic) issues.

I hope you succeed in your quest to locate said faculty. Good luck!

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    +1 Adding to your 3rd point, I've had success with waiting outside of the individual's class room and entering once class adjourned. It's at least useful for getting important forms signed, etc. – Mad Jack Sep 12 '14 at 19:59
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    Excellent point. I've had to do this myself (to get important forms signed. :) )! – Shion Sep 12 '14 at 20:04
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    <shaking my head at the behavior of other faculty> This is sad, truly sad. :-( – RoboKaren Sep 13 '14 at 6:46
  • @RoboKaren I know! Sometimes its such an ordeal. This is exactly why I made sure that my dissertation committee members are generally responsive to my queries and available to meet! – Shion Sep 13 '14 at 21:17
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The important thing to always to remember here is that in fact the Advisor/Supervisor is also as interested in his/her students finishing their studies as students themselves. Mutual Benefits and Mutual Respect.

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